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Boxing in China takes itself seriously

By 20 June 2009 No Comment

After adding another giant circular weight to the buckling barbell, Zhao Ruixun crawls under the load, grunting in anticipation of the lift. “That’s 290 [kilograms],” said his trainer, Zhi Shouan, owner of the Zhi Shouan Boxing Club in Xi’an. “But 320 is his max.”

After producing five halting squats, Zhao shakes out the strain and sprints down the length of the gym, sweat flying off of his body in a fine mist. Coming to a stop before a streaky mirror, he pumps his fist in the air, shouting as his fellow amateur boxers continue bobbing and weaving behind him.

Zhao works in hope of a boxing career, which would theoretically support him and his family with prize winnings. However, most sports in China, especially boxing, are not commercial, let alone profitable at this point.

“There is no history in the commerce of sports or even amateurism for the sake of recreation in China,” said Maggie Rauch, editor of China Sports Today. “Instead, it’s existed primarily as a piece of China’s state sports machine, with a focus on Olympic and other international competitions.”

But a trip inside Zhi Shou An’s Boxing Club shows hopes of commercial gain in full bloom for China’s young boxers.

Boxing, once prohibited in China by Mao Zedong as a “vulgar Western pursuit,” has grasped the country’s imagination. Fans of the sport worship 2004 Olympic boxing gold medalist Zou Shiming as China’s patron saint of boxing. Some members of China’s middle class seek out the sport for fun and fitness, while Zhao and other young hopefuls seek fame and fortune.

“[Boxing] is my passion, and it’s good for fitness,” said Qu Qiao, 36, who boxes for leisure on Friday and Sunday afternoons. Qu, who owns a local light bulb business, can afford the 300 RMB (USD 43.89) monthly membership fee at Zhi’s club, and boxing fulfills a fantasy while improving his health.

For the youngest boxers here, however, entire futures may hang in the balance. Cheng Zhi Ping, a hulking 19-year-old from Tianjin, relocated to Xi’an specifically to train at Zhi’s club. Determined to become a professional boxer, Cheng says he has crazy about boxing. He trains every day of the week, supported financially by his parents.

Wang Dingyuan, 16, also has his hopes riding on dreams of a profitable career in the game. “I’ve loved it since I was little,” he said. Wang has already dropped out of school to pursue boxing, and he trains twice a day, seven days a week. Zhi said Wang had low blood pressure before he started boxing two and a half years ago.

“My friends want to try boxing, but their parents don’t agree,” Wang said, smiling.

Between these camps are athletes seeking something more personal from the experience. Sporting a ponytail and oversized T-shirt, Feng Na, 26, is in the gym today after giving birth to her first child earlier this year. Although she is one of only five women to train at Zhi’s club, Feng says she has experienced no discrimination from her peers.

“Since female boxers are few, people are always surprised to hear that I’m a boxer,” Feng said. “But male boxers have always shown me the highest respect.”

Boxing has toughened both her mind and body, Feng said. “At first there were injuries, tears [and the fear of] boxing with men,” she said. “But I got used to it. Now it’s exciting.”

“Of course I hope to have more women join [the sport],” Feng said, eagerly. “But it’s still pretty unacceptable for women so far, and many women themselves think it’s too violent. But it’s a process of acceptance.”

Boxing enthusiasts around the globe are in a similar process of acceptance, as they adjust to China’s new status as a rising boxing power. As the country’s obsession with boxing grows, so undoubtedly will the fantasies of grandeur for young boys and girls who think they might just have what it takes.

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